Book Review: 'True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century'

Posted on Jan 20, 2018

I’ll get rid of the elephant in the room first.

The “True Sex” in this book’s title is never used without quotation marks.

True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century was, for me, one of those books you see at a store and immediately impulse buy. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I read the thing in about four hours, and started writing this review four and a half hours after I bought it.

Does the content of this book rest on an assumption that an AFAB person dressed as a man is a trans man? Yes. Might this be inaccurate? Maybe, but given this is the first piece of anything I’ve ever seen make that assumption, I don’t care. I don’t care because after years of having to listen to excuses and explanations to strip trans men from any past we might have (“it was easier to find work!” “they were just butch lesbians!”, “women dressed and living as men”) it’s amazing to not have to sit through that shit for once in my life.

While it mostly reads as general non-fiction (or at least it does to me after I’ve been poisoned by academia for a while), there are a few moments when the book likes to remind you it is, in fact, a Queer Studies Text™. And it has more than a few moments when it does a few annoying Queer Studies™ things. But then again I have a weird relationship with Queer Studies™ and I have a generally low tolerance for it, so it's probably less annoying than I'm making it sound

There are moments when terminology slips, and this isn’t something I would mind if it was from historical sources. Despite using ‘assigned female at birth’ at some points in her commentary (which is the preferred terminology for the community presently), Skidmore more frequently uses ‘biological woman’. There’s no need for this- we understand that this is language that may have been used at the time of the subjects of this book, but there is no need to use it in the present day outside of quotes, even when talking about these cases.

Sometimes there’s moments when it is quite obvious that Skidmore is not a trans man. She seems interested in seeing trans men as ways to examine social dynamics, and the histories within this book are the history of these dynamics, not of the trans men that she looks at, nor what this history means or could mean to trans men today. Which like, I guess, but also I could do with a 'you've always been here!' kind of text.

That’s not to say that the dynamics aren’t interesting. Skidmore touches on ideas about assimilation, masculinity, “American” identity, criminality, race/ethnic identity, immigrant identity, and the ways in which these interacted for trans men. I’d say the actual main theme of the book is assimilation, it’s just that it happens to be trans men whose assimilation is being studied.

However, this does mean that only one particular ‘kind’ of trans man seems to have any mention in this book. Many of them married women, lived in small towns or rural communities, and came to public attention because they were “outed” as a result of an autopsy following their death, a marital scandal or a prosecution. One short case study is of a Buddhist man, the rest are all Christian. Only two men in this book are men of colour- Jack Bean (who was Mexican-American), and Ralph Kerwineo (from a mixed African-American background). Jack deliberately chose to pass as white and Ralph hid his Black identity. Both of the two immigrant trans men discussed in detail are white.

Maybe I was expecting this book to be something it wasn’t. It did give me information in the way men of trans experience had their lives framed, what cultural attitudes were, told me that trans men were likely to be found in rural communities and not just in urban ones. But it also brought up questions that it didn't seem to want to answer.

What were the experiences of gay or bi trans men? In a society where trans men assimilated through appearing to embody ‘good’ and ‘normal’ American masculinity, how could trans men attracted to men function? How could trans men who weren’t Christian? Did the appeal to marriage to women as evidence of moral masculinity mean that Jewish trans men, for example, had little or no motivation to engage in these marriages, because Jewish marriage was seen as 'other' to American masculinity (and racialised) in a way that Christian marriage wasn't? What were the experiences of First Nations or Asian trans men (groups that are mentioned in passing in the book, but never in detail) like?

Can these questions be answered?

Maybe I’m expecting too much.

I came to this book totally as the unintended audience. Skidmore published this book intending it for academics, not for weird lonely trans men in the modern day to read for some kind of context for their own existence. But there’s still a few moments in this book that hit me emotionally. Different emotions, but all emotions.

One trans man from 1902 commented that he knew of ten other trans men with whom he enjoyed "many a good hearty laugh at the expense of the men.” It’s nice to know mocking cis men is a transmasculine tradition. In another case, a man called William Howard had his preferred presentation respected after death. He was buried in male clothing even after being "discovered". I cried.

I don't know if I'd recommend this book. But I am glad I read it.